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How Business Unionism Got Us to Janus

Friday, November 10th, 2017

In September, the Supreme Court agreed to hear Janus vs. AFSCME, a case that has the potential to undermine public sector unions by curtailing unions’ right to charge non-members an “agency fee.” This fee covers the protection and services the union is obligated to provide all employees in the bargaining unit.

Many labor leaders and pundits have identified unions’ loss of revenue as the most dire consequence of an unfavorable ruling in the Janus case. Others have pointed out that the forces behind Janus don’t only aim to weaken public employee unions: they are seeking to destroy the public sector and public ownership of resources across the board.

However, the Right’s deeper, darker strategic purpose has been mostly ignored, even by unions: Janus fits in with a larger project, led by the State Policy Network—a network of right-wing think tanks—that aims not only to “defund and defang” unions but to “deliver the mortal blow to permanently break” the Left’s “stranglehold on our society.”

Anyone who cares about democracy and the social and economic well-being of workers has a stake in how unions will respond to the Court’s decision. And with Trump-appointee Neil Gorsuch now sitting on the bench, it appears likely that the ruling will not go in labor’s favor.

The real crisis at hand

The tacit assumption of Janus supporters and foes alike is that, when faced with a choice between being a union member and paying dues or not, significant numbers of members will bolt, and non-members who have been paying “agency fees” will not join. Because unions understand the danger posed by Janus as largely financial, they have focused on saving money, cutting staff and pursuing mergers. Some have also determined that they must be proactive to stave off mass desertions and are reaching out to members to solidify their support as dues payers.

Belt-tightening and talking to members may temporarily fortify union apparatus, but this approach ignores the question Janus demands we ask: Why is labor predicting members will desert their unions and that agency-fee payers will refuse to join?

These assumptions labor holds around Janus exemplify the real crisis unions confront—one not often discussed, even behind closed doors. In defining their purpose primarily as protecting members’ narrowly conceived economic interests and shaping the organization to function like a business, unions construct a very limited role for the workers they represent. Under this status quo, members are generally considered passive, with limited authority and voice. Their sole “power” is to pay dues and cast votes in what are generally uncontested elections for officers.

The right-wing forces behind Janus have used their frighteningly vast financial resources to exploit this weakness. The Janus brief, filed by the National Right to Work Foundation on behalf of Illinois public employee Mark Janus, articulates anti-union arguments familiar to any union activist who has tried to recruit skeptical co-workers. The plaintiff’s claims interrogate AFSCME’s purposes, its presence as a political force and whether it serves as a collective voice for working people on the job and in the larger society.

The brief reads:

Janus objects to many of the public-policy positions that AFSCME advocates, including the positions that AFSCME advocates for in collective bargaining. For example, he does not agree with what he views as the union’s one-sided politicking for only its point of view. Janus also believes that AFSCME’s behavior in bargaining does not appreciate the current fiscal crises in Illinois and does not reflect his best interests or the interests of Illinois citizens.

In building support for Janus, the Right has questioned the meaning of union membership while also criticizing public employee unions’ engagement in politics. Unions have frequently been ineffective in responding to the charge that they are just another special interest group, buying politicians for their members’ benefit. Unions have disarmed themselves in this assault by adopting the mentality and tactics of special interests. Labor has by and large accepted the Right’s definition of the contest (winning over “friendly” politicians in either party), the weapons (campaign donations), and the opponents (workers in other countries as our competitors). In doing so, labor has turned its back on its unique and most powerful resource—an informed, empowered and mobilized membership.

Instead, labor has countered the Right’s arguments on narrow grounds, railing against “free riders,” who they say will require unions “to represent non-members, who would be paying nothing at all, passing that burden off to dues-paying members.”

But this argument has little resonance to workers who already feel they are not well-represented. Like Mark Janus, they don’t feel their voices count. The “union” exists apart from them, with staff and officials insulated from even hearing, let alone responding to, members’ opinions and needs. The economic payoff from union dues can be hard to see when your paycheck hasn’t increased or in some cases, has decreased, despite your union having bargained in your name.

And this argument also avoids addressing the larger case made by the Right: that joining a union is not in workers’ best interest. The Right has confused workers by selling an individualistic, competitive ideology. And unions have been too slow to address why this ideology is harmful and antithetical to principles of collective action and solidarity. As others have observed, organized labor has by and large forgotten the grammar and vocabulary of class struggle.

From “it” to “we”

Though we shouldn’t adopt their methods or mentality, labor can learn a great deal from the Right’s victories. To move from defense to offense, labor needs to develop a new mindset. The strategies being discussed to avoid disaster post-Janus reflect many unions’ unwillingness to reimagine themselves.

One of these strategies is to eschew the legal responsibility to be “exclusive representative” of the bargaining unit, thereby creating competition between unions. Multiple unions representing workers for a single employer is the norm in other countries, where unions are allied with political parties. And some might consider it an idea worth pursuing. But encouraging competition among unions is a disaster, as Chris Brooks demonstrates in a close study of what occurred in Tennessee when an NEA affiliate lost exclusive representation. Workers turn against one another, viewing one another as rivals. Company unions, masquerading as professional groups that offer low insurance rates, compete, successfully, against traditional unions.

Is a “Workers’ Bill of Rights” an answer to Janus and the anticipated loss of collective bargaining in more states, as has been proposed in this publication? This is an interesting strategy but its limitation is that it’s a legalistic solution, not a political one. It doesn’t speak to the reasons workers choose not to join unions when they have that right, or to why they vote them down in elections.

Further, as Nelson Lichtenstein points out, the “rights discourse” is limited by being individual. What makes unions unique is that they represent members’ individual interests through struggle for their collective interests. Moreover, such a bill of rights ignores social oppression that workers experience on the job and separates their lives and rights outside the workplace from those they have inside. This strategy’s major flaw is not in what it tries to do but that it substitute for labor’s ability to critically analyze its losses.

One way to understand what adopting a new mindset would mean is looking to what occurred when the Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE), the reform caucus of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), won the union’s leadership. This caucus conceived of the CTU as a member-driven union that served members’ economic interests best when it supported social justice issues across the board. The newly elected leadership altered the way the union made its purpose evident and worked to make all the union’s operations support this new mindset.

CORE put the people it represented, employees of the Chicago Public Schools, at the center of its organizing, as Jane McAlevey puts it. A member-driven union gives people a reason to be union members and not agency fee payers. The goal? Shift the union from being an “it” to being “we.”

Democracy or bust

Putting workers at the center of organizing requires union democracy. It also demands moving towards international solidarity. What Kim Moody calls “labor nationalism” has weakened the unions by allowing workers to fall prey to Trump’s xenophobia. “’Buy American” is very close to “Make America Great Again.” Such slogans lead workers to become hostile to their counterparts in other countries rather than to the transnational corporations and elites that set economic policy.

Overcoming the fallout from Janus will require reimagining union membership by inverting hierarchical relations that replicate disempowerment on the job. To do this, unions need to grapple with a number of pressing questions:

Why have professional negotiators or paid staff sent to the bargaining table by national- or state-level unions rather than members who have been elected based on their leadership and ideas? Should union organizers be elected rather than being hired and appointed? Why aren’t members allowed to know how their representatives vote in the unions’ executive council meetings? Should endorsements for political office be made by the membership in a referendum? Should unions use “participatory budgeting” to have members decide priorities for where their dues are allocated? What is a member’s responsibility for recruiting and educating co-workers about the union?

Activists who have tried to recruit co-workers to their union know that changing people’s minds about joining can be slow and hard work. It requires listening and a deep commitment to union ideals because people often hold beliefs that are inimical to collective action. This work also requires having a union you trust will make a difference in the lives of its members. Like democracy anywhere, union democracy is difficult to obtain and fragile. It can be inefficient and it creates tensions. But it’s also the key to union power. Vibrant democracy and a mobilized membership are crucial to winning at the bargaining table and to enforcing any agreement in the workplace. Like all legal rights, the contract is only as strong as members’ knowledge of its provisions and willingness to protect it.

This is a moment of truth for unions and their supporters. We need to look in the mirror and see that Janus has two faces. The case could reduce organized labor to a shell, or it could be the start of a remarkable revitalization that draws strength from the widespread social movements that have emerged from both the Bernie Sanders campaign and Trump’s election. The latter is possible, but it will be up to all of us to make it a reality.

This article was originally published at In These Times on November 10, 2017. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Lois Weiner is a professor of education at New Jersey City University who is on the editorial board of New Politics. Her newest book is The Future of Our Schools: Teachers Unions and Social Justice.

SCOTUS Is on the Verge of Decimating Public-Sector Unions—But Workers Can Still Fight Back

Thursday, October 12th, 2017

On Thursday, the Supreme Court agreed to hear Janus vs. AFSCME, the case that will likely turn the entire public sector labor movement into a “right-to-work” zone. Like a lazy Hollywood remake, the case has all the big money behind it that last year’s Friedrichs v. CTA did, with none of the creativity.

In Friedrichs, the plaintiffs argued that interactions between public sector unions and government employers are inherently political. Therefore, the argument went, mandatory agency fees to reimburse the union for the expenses of representation and bargaining were forced political speech, violating employees’ purported First Amendment right to not pay dues.

The case ended in a 4-4 deadlock in March 2016, following the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, who had appeared poised to vote against the unions’ interests.

Much like Friedrichs, the Janus case has rocketed through the federal courts. The National Right to Work Foundation, which represents the plaintiffs, petitioned the Supreme Court to hear the case in early June. All briefs will likely be submitted by mid-January 2018, meaning SCOTUS could hold hearings almost exactly a year to the date that the Court last heard the same arguments.

The defendants may argue for procedural delays, which could potentially kick the decision into the following court term in 2018-2019. And it’s possible that in the meantime Justice Anthony Kennedy could die of a heart attack, or Sam Alito could forget to look both ways while crossing First St. and get run over by a bus. And the Democrats might take back the Senate next year, preventing the Trump administration from naming any more conservatives to the Court.

That’s the kind of magical thinking we’re left with, because the conservative majority on the Supreme Court is clearly determined to tilt the power of the country in favor of big business and against unions for at least a generation, and they care little about how just or fair their decisions appear to the public.

“Right to work” laws, currently on the books in 27 states, strip the requirement that union members pay union dues. Unions claim this creates a “free rider” problem, allowing workers to enjoy the benefits of union membership without contributing a dime. This deprives unions of crucial funding, but also—and this is no small consideration for the right-wing—every union family that drops their membership becomes one less door that union members can knock come election season.

Most national unions have been preparing for this eventuality since the first time the Roberts court took up the issue of public sector union fees in 2014’s Harris Vs. Quinncase. (If you’re keeping score, yes, the conservative justices on the Supreme Court have spent three years in a row trying to break the backs of unions).

Much of this preparation has focused on making sure that unions have a shop steward in every department and that every new hire is asked by a living breathing human being to actually join the union. But, as I wrote earlier this month, the bigger threat once workers have the right to evade union fees is the direct mail and phone-banking campaign that is already being run by Koch Brother-funded “think tanks” to encourage workers to drop their union membership and “give yourself a raise.”

As I wrote then, “The slick ‘give yourself a raise’ pamphlets will do the most damage in places where members think of the union as simply a headquarters building downtown. … But where members are involved in formulating demands and participating in protest actions, they find the true value and power of being in a union. That power—the power of an active and involved membership—is what the right-wing most fears, and is doing everything in its power to stop.”

There is a certain irony in conservatives applying the First Amendment to collective bargaining, a principle that conservative jurists have studiously avoided for two centuries. If every interaction that a union has with the government is a matter of speech, then we have a stronger argument for instituting a Bill of Rights for labor to protect workers and their right to demand fair treatment on the job.

Unions are already oppressively regulated. They are told by the National Labor Relations Board whom they can picket, when they may march and what they might say on a flyer. And they face steep fines if they disobey. Workers are forced to attend endless hours of anti-union presentations before a union election with no right to respond or boycott.

If every interaction the government has with a union is a matter of political speech—as a ruling in favor of Janus would imply—unions must respond by forcefully arguing that the rules of the system have been unfairly holding workers back, violating of our rights to free speech, due process and equal protection.

This blog was originally published at In These Times on October 18, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Shaun Richman is a former organizing director for the American Federation of Teachers. His Twitter handle is @Ess_Dog.

The Entire Public Sector Is About to Be Put on Trial

Friday, May 26th, 2017

Within the next year, the Supreme Court is likely to rule on the latest existential threat to workers and their unions: Janus v. AFSCME. Like last year’s Friedrichs v. CTA—a bullet dodged with Justice Antonin Scalia’s unexpected death—the Janus case is a blatant attack on working people by right-wing, moneyed special interests who want to take away workers’ freedom to come together and negotiate for a better life.

For years, the Right has been hammering through state-level “right-to-work” laws in an effort to kill public sector unionism; it would see victory in the Janus case as the coup de grace.

Right-to-work laws allow union “free riders,” or workers who refuse to pay union dues but still enjoy the wages, benefits and protections the union negotiates. Not only does this policy drain unions of resources to fight on behalf of workers, but having fewer dues-paying members also spells less clout at the bargaining table. It becomes much more difficult for workers to come together, speak up and get ahead. In the end, right-to-work hits workers squarely in the paycheck. Workers in right-to-work states earn less and are less likely to have employer-sponsored healthcare and pensions.

As a judge, Neil Gorsuch, Scalia’s replacement, sided with corporations 91 percent of the time in pension disputes and 66 percent of the time in employment and labor cases. If the court rules in favor of the Janus plaintiff—an Illinois public sector worker whose case not to pay union dues is being argued by the right-wing Liberty Justice Center and the National Right to Work Foundation—then right to work could become the law of the land in the public sector, weakening unions and dramatically reducing living standards for millions of workers across the country.

That’s the Right’s immediate goal with Janus. Then there are the more insidious effects. The case is the next step in the Right’s long and unrelenting campaign to, as Grover Norquist famously said, shrink government “to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.” The Trump team has made no secret of this goal. Trump advisor Steve Bannon parrots Norquist, calling for the “deconstruction of the administrative state,” and Trump’s budget proposal cuts key federal and state programs to the quick. According to rabidly anti-worker Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R), Vice President Mike Pence indicated in a February meeting with him that Pence was interested in a national version of Walker’s infamous Act 10, which eliminated public sector collective bargaining and gutted union membership.

An assault on public sector workers is ultimately an assault on the public sector itself. The Right can strike two blows at once: demonizing government and undermining the unions and workers who advocate for the robust public services that communities need to thrive. A ruling against AFSCME in Janus would decimate workers’ power to negotiate for vital staffing and funding for public services. Across the country, our loved ones will wait longer for essential care when they’re in the hospital, our kids will have more crowded classrooms and fewer after-school programs, and our roads and bridges will fall even deeper into disrepair. The progressive infrastructure in this country, from think tanks to advocacy organizations—which depends on the resources and engagement of workers and their unions—will crumble.

Public sector unions are working on building stronger unions, organizing new members and connecting more deeply with existing members to stave off the threat posed by Janus. AFSCME alone, where I serve as an assistant to the president, has a goal of having face-to-face conversations with one million of its members before the Supreme Court rules. So far, union leaders and activists have talked to more than 616,000 members about committing to be in the union no matter what the court decides. Even so, Janus will make it harder for public sector unions to lead, or even join, fights on social and economic issues that benefit all workers, union or not. And that’s just what the Right wants.

We need the entire labor and progressive movements to stand with us and fight for us. We may not survive without it—and nor, we fear, will they.

This blog was originally published at Inthesetimes.com on May 25, 2017. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Naomi Walker is the assistant to the president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, writes the “9 to 5” column for In These Times.

Should a firefighter or police officer be paid more than minimum wage?

Friday, July 13th, 2012

Mark E. AndersonI do not live in Scranton, Pennsylvania, nor do I know the political leanings of the mayor or the city council; however, I do know that their actions, cutting the wages of city employees to minimum wage, are shameful. By the way, that wage cut applies to firefighters and police officers as well as a myriad of other city employees.

The employee’s unions are fighting back and are taking the city to court:

The trio of unions – International Association of Firefighters Local 60, the Fraternal Order of Police E.B. Jermyn Lodge 2 and the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers Local Lodge 2305 – expect to soon file several new legal actions, said their attorney, Thomas Jennings. Those actions would include:

  • A motion in Lackawanna County Court to hold the mayor in contempt, due to paying 398 city employees minimum wages in their paychecks Friday, even though a judge on Thursday and Friday ordered full wages.
  • A lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Scranton under the Fair Labor Standards Act alleging the city has failed to pay wages on time and failed to pay overtime.
  • Another federal complaint alleging violations of the Heart and Lung Act, because benefits of disabled police and firefighters also were cut to minimum wages without first having a required hearing.
  • A penalty petition with the state workers’ compensation commission over the minimum wages.

“Pick a law. They violated it,” Mr. Jennings said.

The city is claiming that it had no choice as it only has $133,000 in cash on hand as of Monday but owed $3.4 million dollars to vendors, not including employees:

A payroll every two weeks amounts to $1 million, officials said. To free up cash to pay overdue bills, particularly health coverage, the mayor on June 27 announced he was indefinitely cutting salaries of all non-federally funded employees to the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. This way, the payroll every two weeks would amount to $300,000, though [the mayor] pledged to pay all back wages once the crisis is resolved.

Sure, he will pay the workers back once the crisis is resolved, and I bet while he is at it he will toss in some oceanfront property in Arizona and a bridge in Brooklyn.

Now, of course if you go through the comments sections on any news story about the goings on in Scranton you will find that they are, unfortunately, quite typical these days. Those fatcat public employees and their unions are all to blame for Scranton’s and the nation’s woes. Yep, that cop who at 3:00 am is chasing down a guy who just robbed someone’s house is the problem. The firefighter who pulled a sleeping child out of a burning home is the problem. That guy over there who tests the tap water to make sure it is clean and safe to drink; it is his fault that Scranton and the nation as a whole is broke.

This blog originally appeared in Daily Kos Labor on July 11, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Mark Anderson, a Daily Kos Labor contributor, describes himself as a 44 year-old veteran, lifelong Progressive Democrat, Rabid Packer fan, Single Dad, Part-time Grad Student, and Full-time IS worker. You can learn more about him on his Facebook, “Kodiak54 (Mark Andersen)”

Will Public Workers and Immigrants March Together on May Day?

Friday, April 29th, 2011

david baconOne sign carried in almost every May Day march of the last few years says it all: “We are Workers, not Criminals!” Often it was held in the calloused hands of men and women who looked as though they’d just come from work in a factory, cleaning an office building, or picking grapes.

The sign stated an obvious truth. Millions of people have come to the United States to work, not to break its laws. Some have come with visas, and others without them. But they are all contributors to the society they’ve found here.

This year, those marchers will be joined by the public workers we saw in the state capitol in Madison, whose message was the same: we all work, we all contribute to our communities and we all have the right to a job, a union and a decent life. Past May Day protests have responded to a wave of draconian proposals to criminalize immigration status, and work itself, for undocumented people. The defenders of these proposals have used a brutal logic: if people cannot legally work, they will leave.

But undocumented people are part of the communities they live in. They cannot simply go, nor should they. They seek the same goals of equality and opportunity that working people in the United States have historically fought to achieve.  In addition, for most immigrants, there are no jobs to return to in the countries from which they’ve come. The North American Free Trade Agreement alone deepened poverty in Mexico so greatly that, since it took effect, 6 million people came to the United States to work because they had no alternative.

Instead of recognizing this reality, the U.S. government has attempted to make holding a job a criminal act. Thousands of workers have already been fired, with many more to come. We have seen workers sent to prison for inventing a Social Security number just to get a job. Yet they stole nothing and the money they’ve paid into Social Security funds now subsidizes every Social Security pension or disability payment.

On May Day in 2007, immigrants and their supporters marched through the streets of Kennett Square, Pa., a small town where thousands of immigrant workers labor in sheds growing mushrooms. The march was organized by the Farm Worker Support Committee (CATA) and many workers came from the only union shed, Kaolin Farms.   (Photo copyright David Bacon)

On May Day in 2007, immigrants and their supporters marched through the streets of Kennett Square, Pa., a small town where thousands of immigrant workers labor in sheds growing mushrooms. The march was organized by the Farm Worker Support Committee (CATA) and many workers came from the only union shed, Kaolin Farms. (Photo copyright David Bacon)

Undocumented workers deserve legal status because of that labor—their inherent contribution to society. Past years’ marches have supported legalization for the 12 million undocumented people in the United States. In addition, immigrants, unions and community groups have called for repealing the law making work a crime, ending guest worker programs, and guaranteeing human rights in communities along the U.S./Mexico border.

The truth is that undocumented workers and public workers in Wisconsin have a lot in common. In this year’s May Day marches, they could all hold the same signs. With unemployment at almost 9%, all working families need the Federal government to set up jobs programs, like those Roosevelt pushed through Congress in the 1930s. If General Electric alone paid its fair share of taxes, and if the troops came home from Iraq and Afghanistan, we could put to work every person wanting a job. Our roads, schools, hospitals and communities would all benefit.

At the same time, immigrants and public workers need strong unions that can push wages up, and guarantee pensions for seniors and healthcare for the sick and disabled. A street cleaner whose job is outsourced, and an undocumented worker fired from a fast food restaurant both need protection for their right to work and support their families.

Instead, some states like Arizona, and now Georgia, have passed measures allowing police to stop any “foreign looking” person on the street, and question their immigration status. Arizona passed a law requiring employers to fire workers whose names are flagged by Social Security. In Mississippi an undocumented worker accused of holding a job can get jail time of 1-5 years, and fines of up to $10,000.

The states and politicians that go after immigrants are the same ones calling for firing public workers and eliminating their union rights. Now a teacher educating our children has no more secure future in her job than an immigrant cleaning an office building at night. The difference between their problems is just one of degree.

But going after workers has produced a huge popular response. We saw it in Madison in the capitol building. We saw it in the May Day marches when millions of immigrants walked peacefully through the streets. Working people are not asleep. Helped by networks like May Day United, they remember that this holiday itself was born in the fight for the 8-hour day in Chicago more than a century ago.

In those tumultuous events, immigrants and the native born saw they needed the same thing, and reached out to each other. This May Day, will we see them walking together in the streets again?

For information about where May Day marches are scheduled to take place this Sunday, visit the May Day United website.

About the Author: David Bacon is a writer, photographer and former union organizer. He is the author of Illegal People: How Globalization Creates Migration and Criminalizes Immigrants (2008), Communities Without Borders (2006), and The Children of NAFTA: Labor Wars on the US/Mexico Border (2004). His website is at dbacon.igc.org.

This blog originally appeared In These Times on April 28, 2011. Reprinted with Permission.

Attacking Wisconsin’s Middle Class

Thursday, March 3rd, 2011

Image: Linda MericMedia coverage of Madison’s thousands of demonstrators has focused on Governor Scott Walker’s attempt to strip public employees of collective bargaining rights.  Members of 9to5, Association of Working Women have stood with those calling for fairness for working families.  But it’s clear that governor and conservative state legislators’ agenda is bigger than just union busting.  To benefit their corporate masters, they are determined to deny the American Dream to the vast majority of Wisconsinites.

Public workers don’t make big bucks but they are the backbone of the middle class.  They are teachers who tutor struggling students so they’re prepared for college, vocational school or a trade.  They are police and firefighters who protect us when the unthinkable happens.  They are nurses who vaccinate children so we no longer have polio and diphtheria epidemics.  They are $9.00/hour home health care workers helping individuals live in their homes with dignity.  They keep the economy humming by paying their mortgages, buying groceries and purchasing clothes items that keep our Main Street small businesses afloat.

Throughout the years, public employees and their unions have accepted lower paychecks to defer money to their pensions and health care.  Despite this, they’ve agreed to wage and benefit concessions to help do their share in balancing the state budget.

In sharp contrast to their “jobs, jobs, jobs” campaign promises, Wisconsin Republicans are pushing tax breaks to corporations and the rich that will decimate the state’s budget revenue.  To pay for their millionaire friends’ favors, they propose to cut already stretched-thin funding for education, police, firefighters and human services, all provided by public employees.

In a now-public recorded call to Gov. Walker in which a journalist pretended to be anti-union billionaire David Koch, the men discuss plans to threaten public workers with layoffs, attempts to divide public and private sector unions, and their hope that their anti-union efforts could spread nationwide.

Let’s be clear: This showdown is NOT about balancing the state budget.  It’s about union busting, pure and simple.  The upshot of these efforts is to take away power and family-supporting jobs from working families.

Meanwhile, Gov. Walker and allied legislators have launched other attacks on all working families in both the public and private sectors.  Their budget gives themselves the power to slash health care – a key middle class support – for the 1.1 million Wisconsinites relying on Medicaid.

They’ve proposed rolling back Wisconsin’s Family and Medical Leave Act.  Employees working less than 25 hours per week would no longer be eligible for family leave, and employers could deny the use of accrued sick time to cover lost pay.  Many would be forced to take unpaid leave for emergencies, putting their homes, families and even their jobs at risk.

In an end run around Milwaukee’s paid sick days policy, passed by 70% of that city’s voters in 2008, these legislators have introduced a bill to prevent municipalities from enacting paid sick days laws.

Proponents of these measures suggest they’re needed to boost industry and jobs but Wisconsin’s biggest companies are thriving, even through the recession.  Mercury Marine reported profits of $1.1 billion between 2000-2007 while paying nothing in state corporate income taxes.  Harley-Davidson’s profits have increased – profits The New York Times documented as “…mostly going to shareholders instead of the broader economy.”  Nevertheless, hearing the mantra of “you’re lucky to have jobs,” Harley workers were forced to take pay cuts.

The Governor and allied legislators are pulling the rug out from under middle class families because they want to bust unions and strip hard-won protections like health care, family leave and paid sick days from workers to enrich their corporate campaign contributors.

It’s time for people across Wisconsin and the nation to stand up for working families against policies that would degrade their pay and security.

About the Author: Linda Meric is the Executive Director of 9to5, National Association of Working Women, a national membership-based organization of low-income women working to improve policies on issues that directly affect them.

The Truth About Public Employees, the New Convenient Scapegoats

Thursday, January 20th, 2011

kari-lydersenIt’s become a common refrain: public employees from teachers to parking meter attendants to firefighters to nurses are bleeding state and local budgets dry with exorbitant wages and pensions.

As recent news reports and communiqués by conservatives have pointed out, a portion of public sector employees do earn what many middle- and working-class Americans would consider very generous wages and benefits. USA Today reported that on average, public workers earn $11.90 more per hour than comparable private sector workers.

But such numbers constitute misleading propaganda, according to labor analysts and proponents and several recent studies, including an April report by the Center for State and Local Government Excellence and the National Institute on Retirement Security (NIRS). “At its heart,” Amy Traub wrote in the The Nation in July, scapegoating of public employees is an insidious way to divide public and private sector workers who share many of the same interests.”

The NIRS study noted that when education and work experience are considered, state and local employees earn 11 to 12 percent less than comparable private sector workers; and their compensation is still lower when their benefits plans are figured in (6.8 percent lower for state workers and 7.4 percent lower for local workers).

The study notes that while public employees may appear to earn more than their private sector cohorts (for example in Michigan), when their education is considered they are actually earning less than they theoretically could on the private market. The study found 23 percent of local and state workers have college degrees, compared to only 16 percent of all federal workers.

The average state worker appears to earn more only because the state hires more of those in the highly educated categories that tend to earn more, not because workers with the same education earn more in the public sector.

When public employees do earn high wages and receive great benefits, rather than engendering resentment and jealousy, labor proponents say, these should be held up as examples of the security and quality of life that all working people should enjoy, whether in the public or private sector.

Although a small percentage of public sector salaries may be relatively high, they are doubtless still only a drop in the bucket compared to federal spending on defense, state tax breaks to corporations and the like.

Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich recently opined:

Public servants are convenient scapegoats. Republicans would rather deflect attention from corporate executive pay that continues to rise as corporate profits soar, even as corporations refuse to hire more workers…It’s far more convenient to go after people who are doing the public’s work – sanitation workers, police officers, fire fighters, teachers, social workers, federal employees – to call them “faceless bureaucrats” and portray them as hooligans who are making off with your money and crippling federal and state budgets.

The story fits better with the Republican’s Big Lie that our problems are due to a government that’s too big.

Public employees do periodically make headlines for gaming the system – collecting two pensions simultaneously, collecting a pension while still working a public job, or getting a “promotion” immediately before retirement to boost their pension, for example.

But Reich notes that such pension exploitation is a relative rarity, and most public employees are lucky to collect modest pensions that don’t even cost much to taxpayers. An average government worker who retires with a salary of $45,000 will collect a $19,000-a-year pension, he says—“few would call that overly generous.”

While they’re working, most public employees contribute a portion of their salaries into their pension plans. Taxpayers are directly responsible for only about 14 percent of public retirement benefits. Remember also that many public workers aren’t covered by Social Security, so the government isn’t contributing 6.25 [percent] of their pay into the Social Security fund as private employers would.

CalPERS, the California Public Employees’ Retirement System, describes the reality for California public employee pensions, on a “myth busting” website addressing common misconceptions—including the idea that “public pension benefits are excessive and a drain on the public.”

The average CalPERS pension is about $25,000 per year. Half of CalPERS retirees receive $16,000 per year or less in benefits. Unlike the private sector, many CalPERS members do not receive Social Security, making their CalPERS pension their sole source of pension income, other than savings.

The site also says that: “California public retirees put back $2 into the economy for every $1 they receive in pensions.”

Many Republicans argue that even granting collective bargaining rights to public sector employees is a recipe for financial disaster and endangers the public. Nevada, North Carolina and Arizona are among the states that don’t allow collective bargaining for government employees. Labor advocates argue there’s no reason a right enshrined in labor law and guaranteed to private sector workers should be denied to dedicated public employees. If the right to strike endangers public welfare in any way – for example among firefighters or police officers – they can still be allowed collective bargaining rights with some of the same strike-related caveats that affect workers in private industries from transportation to healthcare.

The NIRS “Out of Balance” study concludes:

Although the current recession calls for equal sacrifice, the long-term pattern indicates that state and local workers are not, on average, overcompensated. If the goal is to compensate state and local sector employees in a manner comparable to those in the private sector, the data do not call for reductions in state and local wages. If anything, they call for increases.

An organization called Brave New Foundation has collected stories of public employees facing layoffs and wage freezes, describing the effect on their own lives and on citizens who need their services. A blogger on the site NewsHound reported:

It absolutely infuriates me the way the right wing is trying to demonize – in an effort to cut back benefits of public workers at the same time that they demand a giant windfall from the public by way of tax cuts for the wealthy.

This post was originally published on Working In These Times.

About the Author: Kari Lydersen, an In These Times contributing editor, is a Chicago-based journalist writing for publications including The Washington Post, the Chicago Reader and The Progressive. Her most recent book is Revolt on Goose Island.

Martin Luther King Jr. Gave His Life Supporting Workers’ Rights

Monday, January 17th, 2011

Image: James ParksMartin Luther King Jr., whose birthday we celebrate this weekend, died fighting for the freedom of Memphis sanitation workers to form a union with AFSCME. For King, economic justice went hand in hand with civil rights and the right to join a union was critical to gaining economic justice.

Writing on AlterNet, Laura Flanders says:

King saw public workers as the first line of defense. That’s why he went to Memphis to stand by striking sanitation members of AFSCME, the public workers’ union. In his view they led the way in the fight for fair pay and benefits…and in the fight for dignity for those who shovel our snow and clean our streets.

Read her full column here. Read about the AFL-CIO’s 2011l King Day celebration here and here.

King also recognized that the anti-union politicians in the South were the same people who opposed civil rights for all Americans. That’s why he opposed union-busting ”right to work” for less laws. In fact, in 1961, he said:

In our glorious fight for civil rights, we must guard against being fooled by false slogans, as “right-to-work.” It provides no “rights” and no “works.” Its purpose is to destroy labor unions and the freedom of collective bargaining….We demand this fraud be stopped.

This article was originally published on AFL-CIO Now Blog.

About the Author: James Parks had his first encounter with unions at Gannett’s newspaper in Cincinnati when his colleagues in the newsroom tried to organize a unit of The Newspaper Guild. He is a journalist by trade, and worked for newspapers in five different states before joining the AFL-CIO staff in 1990. His proudest career moment, though, was when he served, along with other union members and staff, as an official observer for South Africa’s first multiracial elections.

Puerto Rico's working families to appeal Governor's massive layoffs

Wednesday, December 8th, 2010

Image: Kate ThomasIn July 2008, Republican Governor of Puerto Rico Luis Fortuño enacted Law 7 in a two-day period. He then invoked the law in 2009, effectively firing 28,000 employees across all sectors of public services–and all without demonstrating any alternative solutions or proving financial necessity.

As a direct result of Law 7, thousands of working people who provide essential services in education, healthcare, the environment, and social services in Puerto Rico have lost their livelihoods, while the Commonwealth citizens have endured a dramatic loss of essential services.

Today at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit (located here in Boston, MA), 28,000 working families throughout Puerto Rico represented by lead plaintiffs from the Central Federation of Workers (UFCW), the Office and Professional Employees International Union (OPEIU), the Service Employees International Union SPT 1996 (SEIU) and the United Auto Workers (UAW) will hear opening arguments.

This article was originally published on SEIU.org.

For more information regarding this case, you can contact Meghan Finegan at Meghan.Finegan@seiu.org.

About the Author: Kate Thomas is a blogger, web producer and new media coordinator at the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), a labor union with 2.1 million members in the healthcare, public and property service sectors. Kate’s passions include the progressive movement, the many wonders of the Internet and her job working for an organization that is helping to improve the lives of workers and fight for meaningful health care and labor law reform. Prior to working at SEIU, Katie worked for the American Medical Student Association (AMSA) as a communications/public relations coordinator and editor of AMSA’s newsletter appearing in The New Physician magazine.


Public Employees Under Attack

Wednesday, October 13th, 2010

Image: James ParksThe people who teach our children, protect us from crime, put out fires in our homes and make sure our water is clean are under attack. Conservative pundits and politicians across the country are using the economic crisis to attack public employees and portray them as privileged compared with everyone else. They use the fact that public employees, many of whom are union members, have been able to keep their well-funded pensions, reasonable hours and decent pay to stir up rage from those who have lost these benefits in the private sector.

Many cash-starved state and local governments have used these same arguments as a cover to cut services, personnel and pension benefits to balance their budgets and weaken unions.

Several new studies should put those arguments to rest. The Economic Policy Institute (EPI) found that state and local public employees are actually underpaid. In “Debunking the Myth of the Overcompensated Public Employee: The Evidence,” Rutgers University professor Jeffrey Keefe found that, on average, state and local government workers are paid 3.75 percent less than similar workers in the private sector.

The study also found the benefits that state and local government workers receive do not offset the lower wages they are paid. The differential is greatest for doctors, lawyers and professional employees, the study found. Read Keefe’s report here.

Public employees also work hard for their lower pay, often putting themselves in danger. According to the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR), nearly two in five state and local government workers—more than 1.4 million— worked in either physically strenuous jobs or jobs with difficult working conditions. Notably, almost half (47.5 percent) of local government employees between ages 55 and 65 held such jobs. If the retirement age were increased, the report says, many of these workers, due to the physical challenges of their jobs, would have to leave the workforce before they are eligible for full retirement benefits. Read the CEPR report here.

Writing in the New York Daily News, Dan Morris of the nonpartisan Drum Major Institute for Public Policy says the attacks on public employees are absurd and dangerous.

…if public-sector workers become cheap, expendable labor, they will contribute less to the tax base and spend less, blunting private-sector job creation. A healthy public sector is just as good for the investment banker as it is for the unionized electrician.

EPI estimates that every 100 public-sector layoffs result in about 30 private-sector layoffs because the subsequent loss of income dampens consumer spending and thus weakens the economy. Says Morris:

The race to the bottom is a callous attempt to lower expectations for employment at a time when millions of people are counting on them to be raised. No victory worthy of the name can be achieved on those terms.

This article was originally posted on AFL-CIO Now Blog.

About The Author: John Petro is an urban policy analyst at the Drum Major Institute for Public Policy. He runs the Progressive Urban Model Policies (PUMP) Project, a first-of-its-kind initiative to organize and share best practices in policy design and implementation. His writing on urban issues has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle and his recent research has been covered in Politico, The New York Times, Reuters, and other media outlets.

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